Sturgill Simpson: A Metamodern Country Philosopher

Image result for sturgill simpson
“The Sturge” (Photo from RollingStone.com)

Apparently going to bed the night before a Sturgill Simpson concert is more exciting than going to bed on Christmas Eve. After counting down the days until I get to see him in concert for what seems like forever, the day has finally arrived! I’ll be seeing “The Sturge” in concert tonight at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland and wanted to do a post on the man himself for the occasion. I’m not sure if there’s anything I can say about him that hasn’t already been said. As Jason Isbell said (in an article that accurately called Sturgill a Country Philosopher), “Sturgill writes and sings songs exactly as a man named Sturgill should. He’s the genuine article, and his work reminds me of the country music I fell in love with as a kid: ornery, smart, and soulful.” And according to some commenters on YouTube, “Sturgill Simpson might be the greatest thing that ever happened to country music” and “goddamned philosopher ole Sturg is.” (Well said!) These comments pretty much describe what I think about “ole Sturg” so I won’t spend too much time talking about him as I would rather talk about his songs and let the music speak for itself. I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 favorite Sturgill Simpson songs below so that you can see for yourself what a great songwriter and singer this man is. But before I begin, I want to congratulate “The Sturge” on winning Album of the Year for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth at the Americana Honors and Awards this week. This is in addition to his Grammy win from earlier this year for “Best Country Album.”

The Sturge’s Top Ten

9 and 10. In his song “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean,” from his first album High Top Mountain, Sturgill sang about hitting the road and finding the end of that long white line. Well, on his next album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he followed through, releasing a song about doing just that in “Long White Line.” I enjoy the consistency found in Sturgill’s music and how certain themes flow from one album to the next, this being an example of that.

The former song also contains some great life advice because life AIN’T fair and the world IS mean!

“You ain’t gotta read between the lines you just gotta turn the page”

8. “Voices

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again- I’m not sure what a metamodern sound in country music is. Whatever that sound may be though, I’m totally into it, as it’s probably the sound that describes “Voices” and all of the other songs on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. How many of us can relate to wanting the voices inside our head to go away? After all, as Sturgill says, “they ain’t got much to say.” As will be evident in the songs mentioned below, Sturgill is an incredible lyricist and “Voices” is a great example of where this talent shines through.

“I hear voices all around me in society’s depression
Over and over they recite their first impression
The rivers are all crying but the ocean cannot speak
Until her waters crash into uncharted shores so dark and bleak”

7. “Turtle’s All the Way Down

This might be Sturgill’s best known song as it’s his only song I’ve ever heard playing in public. To fully understand this song you might actually need to be strung out on drugs since this is what the song is about (he said so himself!) With that being said, I don’t fully understand what he’s singing about, but the Religion Major in me loves all of the religious references found in this song- from Jesus playing with flames in a lake of fire to Buddha showing him a glowing light within. Learning about the infinite regress problem of “turtles all the way down” in cosmology might also help you understand this song but I still say you need to be on drugs.

If you need a good laugh, watch minute 3:04 of his NPR Tiny Desk Concert as he winks after performing this song. I’m hoping he does that same wink at the concert tonight!

“So don’t waste your mind on nursery rhymes
Or fairy tales of blood and wine
It’s turtles all the way down the line”

6. “Call to Arms

Are y’all ready for a political song? Well Sturgill has got ya covered! He starts off the song by listing the countries of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea and asking how many more people are we going to send. He talks about sending our sons and daughters off to die for oil and to control heroin. His criticism doesn’t stop with the government though as the whole of society is also targeted in this song. He criticizes the average citizen saying, “nobody’s looking up to care about a drone, all too busy looking down at our phone.” I love that Sturgill isn’t afraid to sing about controversial topics like the ones found in this song. If there was ever an artist who was going to bring about a country music revolution, it would be this man and it would be because of songs like this.

This is the first song that really stood out to me on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Not only did the lyrics grab my attention but so too did the wide variety of instruments found in this song like trumpets, trombones, and even bagpipes!

A hint of fatherly advice also comes through in this song as he sings, “well son I hope you don’t grow up believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man.” Well said, Sturgill! (More about the fatherly advice found in this album below.)

“Wearing that Kim Jong-il hat
While your grandma’s selling pills stat
Meanwhile, I’m wearing my ‘can’t pay my fucking bills’ hat”

5. “Sea Stories

If you’ve ever wondered what life in the Navy would be like, just listen to this song. Sturgill’s speaking from experience in this song as he spent some time in the Navy himself after high school, getting some salt in his veins. He describes his military years as “thrilling and monotonous.” The more thrilling aspects included partying in Tokyo, which he describes as “out of control with women, drinking and fighting.” His time as a sailor is not only seen in this song but rather throughout the entire album (hence the title A Sailor’s Guide to Earth), which was written “from the perspective of a sailor going to sea and not knowing if he’s ever coming home.” This is a theme found in Sturgill’s family as his grandfather served in the Army and was in the South Pacific during World War II. He had written a goodbye letter to Sturgill’s grandmother and his newborn son while overseas as he thought he was going to die (he did wind up making it back home- five years later!)

It’s the last line in this song that’s my favorite and the cherry on top of a song that’s already great throughout- “but flying high beats dying for lies in a politician’s war.” Once again, ladies and gentlemen, here’s Sturgill singing about things that not a lot of other country artists will. I salute you, Sailor Sturgill!

This song will also give you a great Asian geography lesson!

“When I hit the ground running in Tokyo
From Kawasaki to Ebisu
Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Shinjuku
Shibuya, Ropongi, and Harajuku
Aw, from Pusan and Ko Chang, Pattaya to Phuket
From Singapore to Kuala Lumpur
Seen damn near the whole damn world
From the inside of a bar”

 

4. “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)

Many a country song has been written about being a dad. Take “There Goes My Life” by Kenny Chesney and “He Didn’t Have to Be,” a song about stepdads by Brad Paisley (which I wrote about for Father’s Day), for example. While there may be a plethora of great dad songs already out there, I think this song takes the cake. After all, the whole album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is about Sturgill becoming a father, being described as a “musical letter to his wife and kid.” Sturgill says, “I also wanted him [his son] to know that it’s very important to me that he doesn’t have to grow up and be this numb, callous person to feel like he’s a man.” This hope for this son comes through in this song, especially in lines like “I’ve been told you measure a man by how much he loves.” If Sturgill’s sons (since writing this album, he’s had another one) take the lessons from this album and apply them to their lives I’m sure they’ll grow up to be upstanding men.

The strings and horns in this song are also on point! Country music does not use enough horns, in my opinion. Thank you Sturgill for giving us horns (and great music!)

“I’ve been told you measure a man
By how much he loves
When I hold you
I treasure each moment I spend
On this earth, under heaven above”

3. “Just Let Go

Some people use music as a form of therapy and with songs like this it’s easy to see why. If there’s ever been anything you needed to let go of, this song will speak to you. It’s another one of Sturgill’s metamodern songs and contains references to Buddhism like transmigration and the bardo or “intermediate state.” This article can explain the concept of “bardo” a lot better than I can but to put it simply, “bardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us.” The idea of letting go is important in the bardo, and as the same article also states, “when we have to let go, at times of great loss or when we depart from this body, then something else becomes possible. This is what emerges in the bardo—presence as the ground of being.” My background is not in Buddhism so the concept of the bardo is brand new to me, however, hearing Sturgill sing about this has made me want to learn more about it. A great songwriter will introduce you to new ideas and ways of thinking and that’s exactly what Sturgill does in this song.

Religion major nerd alert on full effect again!

“Am I dreaming? Am I dying?
Either way I don’t mind at all
Oh, it feels so good you just can’t help but crying
Oh, you have to let go so the soul may fall”

2. “You Can Have the Crown

“They call me King Turd up here on Shit Mountain but if you want it you can have the crown” 

Despite all the great lyrics discussed above, I still say that this is the best line in any of his songs. In “You Can Have the Crown,” he sings about the struggles of being a songwriter, and “trying to write a song that’ll pay the bills.” If only he could just get himself a record deal he wouldn’t have to rob a bank (kinda extreme, right?) This song is off his first album High Top Mountain and I think that now, with three stellar albums under his belt, it’s safe to say that he’s gotten over his struggle and written a good song or twenty.

I wonder if he ever figured out what rhymes with Bronco….

“Well, I been spending all my money on weed n’ pills
Trying to write a song that’ll pay the bills
But it ain’t came yet so I guess I’ll have to rob a bank

I guess it could be worse it ain’t that bad
At least I ain’t sitting in old Baghdad
in the middle of the hot damn desert sitting in a tank”

1. “Water in a Well

Coming in at number one is “Water in a Well” off of High Top Mountain. Before performing this song on the NPR Tiny Desk Concert, he said that this one was for the ladies, then he later corrected himself and said they’re all for the ladies. On behalf of us ladies, we say thank you!

“Water in a Well” is a song about moving on after a love has ended but articulated and sung about in a way that only Sturgill can. When you find your love drying up like water in a well just put this song on and let Sturgill’s voice wash over you. I could write more about why I love this song or you could just listen to it for yourself and try to figure out why. Seeing as how I’ve included the video below, I think I’m gonna leave this one up to you!

“Lord knows I’ve tried to move on
And get you out of my mind
You find your way in to all of my songs
Every memory I manage to find
Someday if I’m standing on some big old stage
And you’re down in the crowd
Trying to tell your friends I used to know him when
But in your heart you’ll know it ain’t true somehow
Trying like hell but it’s too soon to tell
If our love has all dried up like water in a well”

 

Honorable Mentions: Live a Little (Brace for Impact),” “Breaker’s Roar” and “Some Days.” Or basically any Sturgill Simpson song!

Here’s to hoping Sturgill plays all these songs in concert tonight! Who knows? Maybe I’ll find some new favorite songs after the night is over. Also, if you’re at the concert, look for me! I’ll be the girl wearing the “Who the Fuck is Sturgill Simpson” t-shirt!

Currently listening to: Willie Nelson- “I’d Have to Be Crazy.” Sturgill covers a version of this song on High Top Mountain and does a damn good job!

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